Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Making government good again

Amidst breaking news of a fly fluttering onto Sen. Chris Dodd's Brillo-pad white hair during the 286th presidential debate this year, our primary system was imploding.

Michigan wants to play in the big leagues with a Jan. 15 primary, ratcheting up the absurdity level in an already ungodly long election season.It's a domino effect, forcing New Hampshire to nudge its primary to Jan. 8 and Iowa to catapult its caucus to somewhere in December — almost one year before the general election.

Both the Hawkeye and Granite states have laws jealously enshrining their first-in-the-nation status. After reporting on 2004's contest there, I can vouch that you'll pry their pre-eminence from their cold, dead hands.Critics say it's patently unfair for two small, white, rural states to hold so much electoral sway.

And they're right.

That's why we need wholesale election reform — because the primitive primary skirmish is just the tip of the iceberg.Here's what we need: publicly financed elections over 120 days. That's it — primary, conventions, general election — we're done. Kind of like how they do it in France, where 85 percent of people turned out in May's presidential vote, shaming the United States' five-decade high of 64 percent in 2004.

Four months is enough time for politicians to get down to real issues while voters actually are paying attention.

While we're at it, let's restore the Fairness Doctrine. Then the nattering talking heads would have to give equal time to positions and candidates, and adequately inform the electorate. (No word on which job(s) City Commission candidate/U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg aide/WBCK host Chris Simmons would have to surrender.)

And let's go for broke: Redistricting by nonpartisan panels from coast to coast, not by the party that controls the Legislature when the census is taken, as is the case in Michigan. The idea that most congressional seats are safely Republican or Democratic, leaving only about 40 competitive seats per cycle, seems kind of undemocratic ... don't you think?

Of course, the sheer sanity of these measures means they're doomed.

But schemes like those of bitter conservative lawyers aiming to capture California's elusive Electoral College votes (because that whole "permanent Republican majority" thing didn't work out so well) probably will make it to the ballot. And it could pass.

During the past few decades, the Supreme Court has decimated any hint of good government reform in redistricting, equal time reporting and elections.In their most audacious decision, justices this year spayed and neutered the modest campaign finance act known as McCain-Feingold.

Money equals free speech in elections, the 5-4 decision says, just as the Founding Fathers intended.How proud Thomas Jefferson would be to see senators spending more time raising money than raising issues — or making policy.

It's a warped system that rewards those who don't have their priorities straight. Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton smirk while shoveling barrels of cash into their campaigns, seeming giddy that we're on track to have our first $1 billion presidential race.

Here in the 7th District, fundraising is a way of life for Walberg, R-Tipton, who used to drum up dough for the Moody Bible Institute. If all else fails, he always has his steadfast sugar daddy, Washington anti-tax lobby Club for Growth.

Democratic state Sen. Mark Schauer is psyched to take him on, vowing to amass $3 million by next year. His chief of staff, Ken Brock, seemed to channel the odiousness of Karl Rove earlier this month, bragging that only Schauer can raise that kind of money, unlike "liberal, Jewish trial lawyer" David Nacht or "lazy" Jim Berryman, for whom Brock twice worked.

Meanwhile, in the district ... Kids are in danger of being kicked off a federal health insurance program, we could lose our Amtrak service and thousands more people are out of work.

Seems like there's a lot more work to be done besides hosting golf outings and $1,000-a-plate dinners.

Seems like we should be electing people who know better.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Heeding the call to serve

Boffo news, boys and girls.

You can still be a superpatriot without signing up to serve. As Mitten State native Mitt Romney recently opined, fighting terrorists is for suckers whose daddies can't afford to buy the presidency:

"The good news is, we have a volunteer Army and that's the way we're going to keep it. My sons are adults. They've chosen not to serve in the military in active duty, and I respect their decision in that regard. ... And one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president."

Romney's remark was a slap in the face to all who have served, from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq war.

To compare dodging roadside bombs and sniper fire to slapping some Romney '08 bumper stickers on Iowa pickups reveals the Republican's startlingly overblown sense of importance.

But the slick CEO's stream-of-consciousness raises broader questions about what Americans owe this country and each other.

Gone are the days of obligation, for good and ill. Men are no longer drafted, so the onus falls not just on active duty personnel, but National Guardsmen, as well.

Most families don't have anyone serving in this gory conflict without end — most notably those of our leaders in Washington. After Sept. 11, the vast majority of Americans weren't asked to "pay any price, bear any burden," as John F. Kennedy once implored.

And so we didn't.

Maybe that's why we barely batted an eye when self-serving politicians used the attacks as an excuse to plunder American ideals, listening in on our phone calls here and torturing prisoners abroad. We knew we were getting off easy.

If that's the goal, then we've plunged into a full-blown, national identity crisis.It couldn't come at a worse time. We face the staggering problem of global terrorism in a nuclear age, battling enemies we don't understand and have made little attempt to. Meanwhile, the gulf between rich and poor is swelling, health care costs are skyrocketing, our deficit is out of control and there's a dearth in educated workers.

We can't afford for our national ethos to morph into life, liberty and the inalienable right to watch "American Idol."

We need the best and the brightest to step up and tackle these unprecedented challenges. That's what America has always been about, since the days of Washington, Paine and Jefferson.

Too many of us don't bother. And we don't trust the feds, the state or charities to solve these problems, either. God knows, they'll just waste our money.

Of course, it just happens to be career politicians who say government is the problem, not the solution. And it's corner-office executives insisting business can solve everything, as they're raiding your pension fund.

We seem to be cynically resolved that the world is hopelessly screwed up and there's nothing we can do about it.

Well, buck up, boys and girls.It's time to get beyond the circular logic and ask ourselves: Who are we? What do we believe in? What do we want this country to be?

Those are the fundamental questions of our time.I, for one, don't want to live in a country where Mitt Romney's egocentric definition of service rules.

Gone may be the days when we felt obligated to sweep up the local church on Sunday or rake our neighbors' leaves. Many of us don't even know who's living next door to us, which is part of the problem. It's hard to feel like we're all in this together if everybody's scrambling to watch "Dancing with the Stars" alone in their living rooms.

But there is hope. Some 65 million Americans volunteer their time at senior centers, schools and soup kitchens. We gave a record-breaking $296 billion to charity last year. (The Romney boys' political charity work doesn't count, by the way.)

Writer Albert Camus believed man is defined by his actions. In that case, we Americans are a bit schizophrenic.

It's not too late to get back on the right track. But while we've been enjoying ourselves, it's grown later than we think.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Schauer should sit this one out

Mark Schauer has rolled up his blue Oxford sleeves, ready to tackle Michigan's paralyzing budget deficit.

He says Democrats are serious about solving the $1.8 billion crunch — unlike Republicans who keep reneging on solutions, like Lucy yanking the football away from poor ole Charlie Brown.

Oh, and he's likely taking a stab at Congress. Not that raising $3 million to unseat an incumbent legislator will distract Schauer from his job as No. 2 in the state Senate.

Yes, everyone was shocked, shocked this month to learn Mr. Schauer wants to go to Washington. Ever since former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz fell to Tim Walberg in last summer's bloody GOP primary, Dems have sounded an anguished cry: "If only Mark had run."

Maybe that's why his political machine didn't do battle for Sharon Renier, the ne'er-do-well turkey farmer who last fall came within four points of beating Walberg anyway.

Schauer is now the Fred Thompson of the 7th District, undeclared but almost a lock to jump in. He's got star power in a crowded field.

On paper, the Bedford Township senator is everything the Democrats would want: smart, attractive, experienced, hardworking and well-connected.

But here's the problem.Michigan is facing its worst crisis in history, between the hemorrhaging auto industry, embarrassingly low college-graduation rates and a state government that lacks the dough to keep the lights on.

Schauer can't possibly accomplish more for the state as a freshman congressman — one out of 435 — than as minority leader of Michigan's upper chamber. He's Gov. Jennifer Granholm's go-to guy and the Dems' strongest voice on budget matters.

Leaders don't quit when the going gets tough. And make no doubt about it: Schauer will depart the Senate in spirit long before the 2008 election.

Running against Walberg and his unlimited Club for Growth war chest is more than a full-time job.

Right now, Schauer's constituents need him in Lansing.Most disappointingly, the senator seems fixated on strategy, not issues. In an interview this week from Israel, Schauer ticked off the economy, Iraq war and health care as major campaign issues.

He spent some time blasting Walberg for voting no on the minimum-wage hike and claiming credit for W.K. Kellogg Airport funding he voted against.

But Schauer's main argument was that he's the most electable candidate — everyone has told him so. There was no vision, no real fire for working for Michigan.

It wasn't the earnest voice of the small-town guy with that Ned Flanders mustache, who had run the Community Action Agency and upstart races for City Commission, state House and Senate because he wanted to serve.

It sounded like he'd swallowed the pill of politics as usual, fed by overweening advisers.

In the rush to defeat an ethically challenged congressman, politicians can't abandon their own principles.

It's fair to judge Walberg on how he's slickly dispatched his enemies, like Schwarz and former state Sen. Jim Berryman.

But it's also fair to judge Schauer on how he has treated both men, his friends during the past two decades.

When Berryman declared his candidacy in the 7th, Schauer was right behind him, swearing he'd never run himself. But he and his advisers abruptly decided Berryman didn't collect enough cash and figured Schauer could do better.

Schwarz has mulled a run — possibly as a Democrat — and polling shows he'd beat Walberg by three points. He's told Schauer he can't run for office until he wraps up chairing a nonpartisan, state health care commission this fall, but his old chum says Schwarz has missed the boat.

Though he vowed he'd never run against Schwarz, Schauer said he's now prepared to do just that.

The political game, as it's played today, dictates Schwarz and Berryman bow out if Schauer gets in. That's exactly what the senator's advisers are smugly counting on.

But even if Mark Schauer now believes the politics-as-usual mantra, his friends don't.Both are fighters. Berryman once debated Walberg 27 times in a state House race. Schwarz signed up for a stint in Vietnam and went back for more in the CIA.

If they think running for Congress is the right thing, they'll do it.

The only thing Schauer can count on is the 7th District race will be an interesting one. And it just may make him long for the tranquility of jousting with the GOP in Lansing.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Dem hopefuls fumble on compassion

CHICAGO — As with any spectacle at Soldier Field, impatient, nacho-chomping fans shrieked at the stars on the 10-yard line and didn't hesitate to hiss at shady maneuvers.

The 95-degree evening heat underscored the fact that it was only an exhibition game — the seventh this summer — but fevered followers gyrated like it was the season's kickoff in January.

Of course, the Chicago Bears never took the field Tuesday at the space-age stadium — and the 15,000-person crowd couldn't have cared less.

Teachers, steelworkers, firefighters, nurses and autoworkers came to catch a glimpse of seven Democratic presidential contenders at the AFL-CIO forum and see what they'd do about health care, organizing rights, trade, infrastructure and Iraq.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich wooed the rank and file, pledging a "workers' White House" and an end to NAFTA, the bane of their existence.

No matter.

The leadership clearly was smitten with frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who defended taking bundles of corporate lobby cash while brazenly declaring "I'm your girl" against the right-wing machine. They want to back a winner, and the Clinton name is still election gold.

But more than halfway through, it became clear the debate was not about them. It wasn't about the talking heads' prognoses or flag-waving graphics on MSNBC.

When Steve Skvara stood at the microphone, neck throbbing in nervous pain as he gripped the metal braces at his side, the cheers and catcalls stopped.

After putting 34 years into a company that went bankrupt, the disabled Union Township, Ind., steelworker lost one-third of his pension and all his health insurance. He's had four heart attacks and a hip replacement, and his wife is still recovering from shattering her hip and pelvis in an auto accident.

Skvara knows he's not alone; 47 million Americans lack insurance. Health costs are the No. 1 reason for bankruptcy and he thinks Medicare should be available for all.

"What's wrong with America?" he asked, voice quavering. "And what will you do to change it?"Former Sen. John Edwards grinned, clapped and dispensed vague promises to reform pension law and health care.

Then he promptly returned to his theme of being the true workers' candidate, having walked 200 picket lines since leaving the Senate.

"Who was with you in crunch time?" Edwards smiled broadly at the crowd.

Translation: It's not about you, Steve. It's about me.

Deborah Hamner didn't fare much better when she talked about the death of her husband, George, in the Sago mine disaster last year and asked what the candidates could do to improve workplace safety.

Joe Biden announced he felt her pain — he'd lost his first wife, after all — and then took the rest of his time piling on fellow Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials on Pakistan.

Neither Skvara nor Hamner felt the hopefuls really answered their questions. They couldn't say if anyone on that Soldier Field stage truly responded with compassion.

Skvara said he's met enough politicians to know they'll launch into a stump speech if you ask about the weather.

But he's not giving up.

"Union people want straight answers," he told me, "because we deal with companies all the time that don't give us straight answers."

He and Hamner deserved better Tuesday night. And the candidates on stage should have known better than to grandstand. There are five long months before the Iowa caucus to do that at pig roasts, coffee shops and stockcar races from Des Moines to Daytona Beach.

Tuesday was the time for them to dignify the courage of two Americans voicing real problems and concerns.

That's real leadership.If societies are judged by how we treat the least among us, so too should those who aim to run ours.

And if the candidates' stony stock answers are any indicator, we may as well adopt the sober sign-off of Edward R. Murrow, invoked by debate moderator Keith Olbermann:

"Good night and good luck."